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My aunt is coming to dinner tomorrow.

The meaning is clear. However, if you think about it, what this seems to literally say is that the aunt is going directly to some dinner (and not even an article is used there).

How would you explain such grammar?


I posted this question before on ELL StackExchange. However, I did not receive an answer that would prove the grammar aspects of this.

The user Laure there told me that what is happening here is that some phrases, words, articles are simply omitted.

However, I did not receive a proof of this and I would like to have you confirm this (if this is true, of course). Just to make sure. The user seemed to be the only one claiming this. If I see more people agreeing with it, I'll be more confident this is true.


Edit: After some discussions, I've now decided that the explicit question I should ask here is:

Why is there no article,'the' nor possessive pronoun/noun before the singular noun 'dinner'?

Isn't there a grammar rule that tells us that singular nouns always have at least one of those?

A popular example of such usage would be the phrase 'Go to bed.'

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    @matth: If you can go to school, to work, and to war, why can't you go to dinner? – Peter Shor Sep 11 '14 at 20:51
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    If you consider in hospital and at university, you realize that the list of nouns you can do this for is somewhat arbitrary and differs between American and British English. – Peter Shor Sep 11 '14 at 21:20
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    When people in the U.K. are sick, they go to hospital, but people in the U.S. go to the hospital. Jews usually go to temple or to synagogue to worship, but these expressions often strike Gentiles as strange. And people in the U.S. go to college but to the university, while people in the U.K. go to university. However, you'd go to the temple, the college, or the hospital if you weren't going there to worship, study, or be cured. These are the only cultural/trans-Atlantic differences I know of, but I think these are enough to show that these expressions are somewhat arbitrary. – Peter Shor Sep 11 '14 at 21:45
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    I know "to temple" from having heard it. See this question for the U.K. use of "to hospital" (but if you're an American, you'll notice "to hospital" and "to university" if you read British books). – Peter Shor Sep 11 '14 at 21:57
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    I'll repeat because my one and only comment has been deleted... grrr. "My aunt is coming to [our house for] dinner tomorrow" OR "My aunt is coming to [our home] [in order to have] dinner tomorrow" – Mari-Lou A Sep 11 '14 at 22:01
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We often use singular nouns to represent the entire class of object they describe, rather than an individual instance of the noun. When we do so, the noun often does not take an article

  • I love cilantro.
  • She travels by car.
  • Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
  • What time do you go to work?
  • I use soap to wash my hair.

This is not universal.

  • I am on the job.
  • When driving, grab the steering wheel.
  • She went to the hospital. [Although in British English, it is to hospital]

In your example, coming to dinner means the generic dinner rather than a particular dinner

When is she coming to dinner?

but

Is she coming to the dinner to honor the chairman?

In the latter example, dinner is not the generic concept, but is a particular dinner. This is somewhat complex because the generic usage, without an article, can exist even when you are talking about a particular instance

Don't put garlic in that salad!

Can I meet you for lunch tomorrow?

There is a subtle difference between these two sentences

Are you going to dinner?

Are you going to the dinner?

The first means are you going to eat during the dinnertime meal. The latter are you going to a particular dinner event.

  • Agreed with all this, and +1 for the variety of examples. The only thing I quibble with is the assertion that "dinner", unadorned, means a generic dinner. In the OP's case, and regular practice, "dinner", alone, means the specific dinner which is happening today (and, between two speakers, the one they plan to have together). – Dan Bron Sep 11 '14 at 22:29
  • As for the first examples: 'cilantro', 'work', 'soap' are mass nouns and 'breakfast' is almost always a mass noun as well, thus those examples are not very great. – user26486 Sep 11 '14 at 22:34
  • @Mathh, no, "work" is not a mass noun in "going to work" (it would be in "I've got a lot of work to do"). – Dan Bron Sep 11 '14 at 22:36
  • @DanBron Would you say, 'I'm going to works.'? Oxford Dictionaries claim it is a mass noun. – user26486 Sep 11 '14 at 22:38
  • Your remark 'She went to the hospital. [Although in British English, it is to hospital]' further proves Peter Shor's argument that this depends entirely on the language used, probably on specific nouns being talked about also, while somewhat depending on the conditions in which the prepositional phrase is being used in. As Peter said, 'you'd go to the temple, the college, or the hospital if you weren't going there to worship, study, or be cured.' – user26486 Sep 11 '14 at 22:42
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I'm not a native English speaker, so I don't really know about the grammar rule behind this. However, by saying "to the dinner", it feels like the aunt will go to a specific, previously mentioned dinner. It also focuses the attention on the "setting", rather than on the action of dining. Take "My aunt went to dinner with Mary" vs "My aunt went to the dinner with Mary". In the first example, all we care about is that my aunt was meeting Mary for dinner, while in the second example the dinner is much more important. Our attention is not focused anymore on Mary's company, but on the fact that there's something special about this dinner. We're suddenly wondering where this dinner will be, who will attend, and so forth. By omitting "the", I guess we're just saying that there's really nothing special about the dinner itself.

As for omitting my, I believe the reason is simply the verb you chose: "coming". Once again "My aunt went to dinner with Mary" vs "My aunt came to dinner with Mary". In the first example, they are eating out together. In the second, they are coming at my place to have dinner, since "coming" expresses motion towards the speaker. The verb is already telling us that we will be at my place while having dinner, so it's my dinner.

  • The "my" doesn't imply "at my house"; it could equally be out. Consider: You, I, and Matt are at dinner at a fancy restaurant. Auntie Jill is late. Matt asks you: "Didn't you say Aunt Jill is coming to dinner? Where is she?". Dinner, unqualified, does mean "the dinner we are going to have tonight", but it doesn't say where: only that it is ours, and tonight. It is also possibly to qualify dinner so that it is not ours, or not tonight, or both. – Dan Bron Sep 11 '14 at 21:39
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The confusion can arise because dinner can mean either the actual meal that is to be eaten or the event at which the food is eaten. See Cambridge Online

So with a slight rewording:

My aunt is coming to my dinner meal tomorrow.

or

My aunt is coming to attend my dinner meal tomorrow.

or

My aunt is coming to eat my dinner meal with me tomorrow.

Based on your Edit, we have an ellipsis in which a word or words (probably attend my or attend our) are deliberately omitted from the sentence, but assumed to be there. The danger of using an ellipsis is that the listener or reader may incorrectly guess your true intent.

  • This doesn't address the exact misunderstanding I have with this. – user26486 Sep 11 '14 at 21:18
  • @mathh please see m edit based on your edit. – Gary's Student Sep 11 '14 at 21:43
  • Gary, what word or words are elided in coming to dinner (or going to bed, leaving school, whatever)? – Dan Bron Sep 11 '14 at 21:56
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    @Gary, my not-so-subtle implication was there is no ellipsis at play here. That's a false premise baked into OP's question. There's nothing abbreviated or elided or omitted about "coming to dinner"; it is complete as-is. I had a lot of back-and-forth with the OP about this, but it was archived in Chat. Anyway, the long and short is: the OP wants there to be something wrong with "coming to dinner", but there isn't. – Dan Bron Sep 11 '14 at 22:18
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    @DanBron You may be right.....I'll give it some thought...I'll remove the ellipsis reference. – Gary's Student Sep 11 '14 at 23:54
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For the original question's statement:

My aunt is coming to dinner tomorrow.

Why not an article?

My aunt is coming to the dinner tomorrow.
Which dinner? Oh, you mean that big well-known thing.

My aunt is coming to a dinner tomorrow.
Oh? Is this something you're hosting?

My aunt is coming to dinner tomorrow.
What time will she be at your house?

If you're going to say a dinner, it's a big deal. If you say the dinner, it's a known deal. If you say dinner, it's a big meal (at your home, usually).

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